When Alexander Dukhovny was growing up in Ukraine, he associated rabbis with “the color of sadness,” because the only rabbis he had seen were always dressed in black.
It wasn’t until years later, while visiting his younger brother in Amsterdam and meeting a rabbi from The Hague, that Dukhovny, now the chief rabbi of Progressive Congregations in Ukraine, realized, he said, that a rabbi — and Judaism — could be “multicolored and multifaceted.”
Dukhovny was in town Nov. 5 to speak at Rodef Shalom and to lead prayers with the JJEP religious school students.
Dukhovny was the first Ukrainian-born rabbi ordained post-Perestroika. He is based in Kiev and serves the Hatikvah Progressive Jewish congregation, with which Rodef Shalom twins, as well as 43 other Reform Jewish congregations throughout Ukraine. A former scientist with the Ukrainian National Academy of Science, Dukhovny graduated in 1999 from the Leo Baeck College-Centre of Jewish Education in London.
“From my childhood, I knew that my grandfather — who I never met — was a rabbi from Chasidic descent,” he told the group gathered in Aaron Court. “The name Dukhovny means spiritual. I knew this was a long chain of Jewish tradition.”
Dukhovny said that, although when he was young he had no desire to become a rabbi, things changed when he saw what a progressive rabbi could be.
“For me, to see the rabbi from The Hague was something,” he said. “I never saw a rabbi outside the former Soviet Union. I said, ‘He doesn’t look like a rabbi.’ He was fancy, with a human face.”
Dukhovny was inspired by that meeting to begin his rabbinic training in London.
He praised Rodef Shalom for its support of Ukrainian Jewry and specifically applauded its funding of the Hatikvah Jewish Center.
“We feel your heart,” he said, adding that hatikvah means hope.
The Hatikvah Center was dedicated about a year ago and was funded by three North American families, including Anne Malloy and Henry Posner of Rodef Shalom. The building is situated in Kiev’s historic Jewish neighborhood, Podol. The 4,000-square-feet center cost about $1 million and has a sanctuary with seating for 150, activity rooms, a library, a youth center and a kitchenette.
Ukraine has about 360,000 Jews, according to the European Jewish Congress.
Dukhovny shared some insight into life in Ukraine, noting “everything is corrupted.”
“If you see a doctor, you have to pay, even though it’s in the Constitution that it’s for free,” he said. “Even if you are right, you don’t know if you’ll win in court, because the courts are corrupted.”
Ukraine, he noted, is in the geographical center of Europe, “needs to have European values” and looks to the United States from which to model paradigms of behavior.
“We from the post-Soviet countries are looking at you as an example for us,” he said.
Despite the difficulties faced by the citizens of Ukraine, Dukhovny said he had hope.
“I have hope that the government will start building a proper country,” he said. “And you, American Jewry, are a good example. Some Americans are looking to you, and we are looking to the Americans.”
Toby Tabachnick can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.